Put a Lid on It
Cal Anderson Park, a Man-Made Nature Walk
In 1902 a full-page article appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with the title "Let Us Make a Beautiful City of Seattle." It called for the purchase of land and the development of an elaborate park system. Within a year, the Olmsted Brothers (the son and stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted—the designer of New York City's Central Park) would arrive in town to conduct a survey of Seattle park possibilities and complete a comprehensive park plan. Lincoln Park (now new and handsome Cal Anderson Park at 1635 11th Avenue on Capitol Hill) was one of those plans.
Practically all of the early parks in Seattle share a common trait in that they are grounded in an intimate exchange with the natural environment, be it access to one of our numerous bodies of water, a heavily wooded ravine, or a lookout. For the park on 11th Avenue, the vehicle has long been water, but this water is not a salmon stream meandering through a forest. The park is home to the first pumping station in Seattle, which predates the Olmsted visit and directs water to Volunteer Park, Queen Anne, and Magnolia. Cal Anderson's inception was also rooted in a role of the park that is secondary to the functional needs of the city and its thirst. As one of the city's first playgrounds, ball fields, tennis courts, jogging tracks, and shuffleboards, the park provided a host of possible activities not rooted in the wonders of nature. This park has long been about an engagement with the man-made.
The Parks Department approved a master plan for park improvements in 1999. This included the construction of a new underground, lidded reservoir in order to comply with water-quality standards while also increasing the usable park area and the security of the water supply. A key constraint was that the water level in the two new underground chambers had to remain the same as the former surface reservoir in order to interface with the city water system. This had to be accomplished without raising the reservoir too high above the historic gatehouse and the surrounding streets. The new one-acre water feature is but a few feet above the water below, something akin to an oil tanker with its store of fuel.
The lid of the reservoir is a structural concrete slab with weight limitations that restricted what could be done. As a result, much of the rolling topography of the park was built using rigid insulation (often used in architectural models) to form the contours into a life-size maquette. A rather thin layer of topsoil and grass were then added. The result is that you get a grass mound that looks like a Teletubby hill, constructed in a manner not unlike a movie set.
The site is loaded with these constructs of functional accommodation. One of the park's designers, Jonathan Morley with the Berger Partnership, likened the park to a "roof garden." It was his concern to ensure that everything that rose to the surface of the park would be integrated into its amenities. Planters along the promenade house ventilation grilles for access corridors and equipment below, the plants serving much as a well-placed doily on a water-stained table. This "inseparable collaboration" with the engineering is what gives the park much of its clarity.
Water, rock, earth, and plants are all present, but in the most metered of manners. The novelist Matthew Stadler said that he loves the park's "supreme artificiality." "All the rest of Seattle is too confusing, but there [in the park] everything is laid out and makes sense." In this way, the park is truly historical in that it not only acknowledges our relationship with the Olmsted Brothers, but it also acknowledges our attempted glimpse into the future at the World's Fair of 1962, aptly titled "Century 21."
John Charles Olmsted raved, "I do not know of any place where the natural advantages of parks are better than here [Seattle]." What excites about this new park is that it proves that we are capable of building engaging places in even our most restricted and uneventful sites. This relatively flat stretch of land provides the densest residential neighborhood in Seattle with sorely needed breathing room.
Trees, which the reservoir lid could not support, are not missed here. This is a venue for urban strolls, out in the open and devoid of commerce: our first great park of the 21st century.
Jerry Garcia is an architect for the design firm und.